Tempus Fugit

Three steps forward, two steps back: The Writer’s Tango. This week I fell further behind my so-called schedule while accelerating the pace of my work. Did some great work with my co-writer, and also found time to do some great work on the Shine rewrite and the websomething. Needs must, when the devil drives.

I didn’t post on Thursday or Friday; I was busy writing. It’s a hazard of posting a work diary. I took it easy on the weekend. On Monday morning I felt refreshed and ready to work.

One thing that I did was a devise a purpose-built outlining tool, and it got me thinking about how different outlining tools work, and how important it is to keep your methods fluid.

“Outline” means different things to a different people. I tend to use the term to refer to a document that lists what’s going in the piece that I’m working on in the order that they go in. Depending on the form I’m working in, I might call it a “step outline”. I usually just write each thing on a line. If something needs sub-outlining, I might do that too, or add a couple of notes about stuff I know needs to go in the “step”.

An outline is very linear. Almost all outlining tools are representations of linear structure: A, then B, then C, then D. But even though they might contain exactly the same information, a Word document with ten double-spaced lines of text on it feels completely different from a row of ten index cards with a line of text each. And a handwritten sheet of paper with the same ten lines is different, too.

Each of them is shorthand for the work as a whole, and none of them will mean much to anyone except the writer. A short phrase is able to represent something larger, something between a paragraph and ten pages, because the writer knows what it means. It’s your tool; no one else has to look at it.

On Styles and Society, I’m doing something a bit backwards, which is that I’m retroengineering an outline from a book that is substantially complete. We have an overall structure for the whole book that works; my day-by-day work is to restructure each chapter. So my work begins with an inventory. Then the question is: What does this want to look like? And then: “What’s the most efficient way to turn this from what it is into what it wants to look like?”

The first chapter I tackled was the biggest: 82 pages on Victorian architecture. I used a three-page outline to represent an 82 page document. First I went through the doc adding headings and extracting a brief description of each section, then I turned that into something like a step list. To whit:

Point-counterpoint: the lazy indian and the protestant wendigo

How verticality and horizontality trend together in architecture +fashion

Donald Smith
HBC Hero and capitalist monster
cf. Thompson, Fraser + their ilk

Like I said, it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but the writer. Anyway, this gave me a tool that I could use to see what I had; then I rearranged the structure of the chapter by rearranging the outline. I had page numbers for each step, and a hard copy for reference, so it wasn’t too headsucking to rearrange the old version of the chapter to match the new version of the outline.

I’m a big believer in index cards. I’ll whip them out at the slightest provocation. I usually use blank business cards, because a million of them can fit on a table and they force me to keep the thoughts on them simple. The beauty of them is that they’re so tactile. In a word doc, things are in a certain order, but your cards don’t have to be laid out in a line. You can shuffle them around, put related ideas together, toss the things you’re not sure about in a pile to the side, whatever floats your boat. Something about physically moving the cards connects to the body. Most artists know that the body makes the decisions, not the head. Don’t take my word for it, though. Try all the tools, get to know them, and when you reach into your toolbox you’ll grab the right one.

On this rewrite, I haven’t touched the cards at all. The closest I came was printing out a whole chapter, then cutting it up with scissors. I never tried this one before, but it worked great. I stapled each section together (each section already had a heading in boldface), then I was able to move them around and stack the consecutive sections in little groups. It let me see all the headings at once, so I could see the entire chapter – plus it let me pick up a section and just read it to see what was in it. Also it was really easy to pick up orphaned paragraphs and move them around. Worked great. Wouldn’t have worked with Victorian, though. Victorian was too large. And it wasn’t necessary to do it for Classical, because the changes for Classical were minor enough that I could do them right in the doc.

So the lesson is not to get hung up on finding one tool that works all the time, but to learn what all your tools feel like, then just reach for the one you need.


Mea Culpa

I have hit the panic button.

I have rolled my schedule back one week. This is my confession.

I have lost all sense of progress other than to know that I’m really behind. Week Four’s worklist lays pristine and untouched, while weeks One to Three lay disassembled in parts all over the workshop. I’m basically up to date on the commentaries, but I allowed myself to become demoralized with the slow progress on the main thread of the work, which is the chapters themselves.

Once I slowed down on the chapters, I continued to slow down. The initial week’s chapter – a single, 82-page monstrosity – was easier to deal with than week two, even though Week Two was only 60 pages. The best cure for resistance is no escape. When your army has the water at their back and no way out but through the enemy, you can bet they’ll fight.

Because Week Two was two chapters, and I was working on them concurrently, I could always put one down and work on the other one; at least, that’s the way I experienced it. I soon found that my response when the work on a chapter got difficult was to switch to the other chapter or to the commentaries. While this kept me moving more or less forward, it failed to create enough pressure to break through the more difficult organizational parts of the work. To create that pressure, I needed constraints: constraints of time, constraints of attention, constraints of form.

(An example of combining all three constraints would be “In the next 90 minutes, create an outline briefly describing the content of each section of this 30 page chapter”. The constraint of form gives a structure for the pressure of the work to release into.)

So, what happened? Facing difficult decisions about the work in front of me, I deferred them; those deferred decisions created unfinished work where my schedule called for finished work; my schedule lost authority; my morale dipped; and my frame of reference for how close I was to being on schedule went out the window. It went from “Looking good” to “A day or two late” to “I don’t know. Late. Not close. Who cares.”

This third category is bad news. Addicts recognize the to-hell-with-it switch that trips when you wander too far off the path. You might not be an addict, but I bet you know that feeling. When I’m a writer facing resistance, I’m an addict without an addiction. If I was hooked on alcohol or junk or coke or porn or ebay or gambling, I’d go on a three-day bender. Instead, resistance lets me say “to hell with it” in a hundred tiny ways. Dirty dishes, dirty laundry, messy desk, late night videogame sessions, stacks of graphic novels from the library, the staring purgatory of the internet. Click, click, point, click. In the trance of “to hell with it” there’s no work to be done. It’s kind of soothing, except that the part of you that knows you should be working keeps it from fully being fun. And you can step off the path in the space between heartbeats.

How did I get here? I started with an active decision to set a schedule that was extraordinarily difficult. I fell behind when I encountered difficult work and made a passive decision to abandon my task management – my “I’m going to do this and this today and that and that tomorrow and then Friday I’ll finish up” traffic direction. I made an active decision to reduce my available time for the book by simultaneously working on a rewrite of the Shine libretto and a rewrite of a websomething. (Both of those projects are going great.) Finally, I made a passive decision to wallow for a few extra days in “poor me I’m so behind schedule” land before dusting myself off and getting back to it.

In the time since I began this blog yesterday, something shifted. This morning, I sat down and wrote the closing paragraph to our 82 pages on Victorian architecture. Week One is complete. The task that had been dogging me for three weeks only took me a few minutes. Week Two is tantalizing close: the two chapters are each well marked up, and need only a final push. I believe I can finish them both today. Tomorrow morning I’ll get started on Gothic and Edwardian. I should be able to finish Gothic by Sunday and get a beachhead on Edwardian. With pushing the schedule back one week, I’ll just owe the rest of Edwardian. That’s my plan and I’ll stick to it until I have to change it.

The crux is this:

If you do not have a plan, then you are relying on inspiration.
Resistance can mess with your inspiration, but it can’t mess with your plan.

Actors spend a great deal of time analyzing their scripts to find playable actions. The cornerstone of contemporary acting technique is performing an action that places your attention on the other character in the scene: you’re trying to borrow fifty bucks, you’re trying to extract an apology, you’re trying to talk their pants off. The last place an actor wants their attention to be is on their own emotional state, because i) it will inhibit organic emotional response, and ii) it prejudges the “right” emotion and elimates vast territories of rich experience. So you want an action that you can perform whether you’re angry, sad, relieved, ecstatic, or hopeless.

This is exactly the same criterion that we require for any artistic activity, unless we choose to allow our productivity to be held hostage by our moods.

If you realize that you’ve been sitting at your desk for an hour and you don’t know what you’ve been doing, it may be time to draft a quick plan. The exact form the plan takes will depend on what form you’re working in, what stage of the work you’re at… and how much gas you have in the tank.

In its simplest form, the plan is a contract with your attention: for the next twenty-five minutes, you will keep your attention focused on one task. So get a nice hot cup of tea and set the timer. Set your worries aside for the moment: your email and your debt and your lover and your laundry can wait.

It can all wait, for just a few minutes.

While you do the work.

Non Compos Mentis

Multi-tasking has coated my desk in a thin layer of detritus. Midway through Week Three, items are continuing to arrive in my inbox faster than they are getting cleared out. The schedule I set for myself was fairly onerous: each week, in my roughly three and a half spare days, I am to retouch about a half-dozen images, edit about eight 500-word essays, and rearrange about fifty pages of chapter text. The worklists for the first two weeks were fairly lax. Now, it’s hitting hard.

As I chew through tasks big and small, I am lobbing a steady stream of serves over the net to my father’s desk. Stacks of commentaries to be approved. Chapters to be approved. Missing paragraphs to be written. New paragraphs to be inspected. (My description of the Last Spike and introduction of Donald Alexander Smith was enthusiastically approved; my definition of the Deutscher Werkbund was roundly rejected. C’est la vie.) Ever play Asteroids? It’s a bit like that. Shooting down the big tasks creates smaller tasks. If you shoot too many big tasks at once, soon your entire screen is filled with tiny little tasks, any of which can turn your tiny craft into space debris.

Amid the whirlwind, it’s easy to become demoralized. Most of the way through Week Three, I still have much of Week Two glaring malevolently at me from my work list.  Technically, I still owe a paragraph from Week One. I’m wrestling with a chapter on “Styles and Movements”. (If the chapter were a guy, he’d be an entertaining party crasher: “You’ve got some great stuff to say, pal, but what the hell are you doing here?”) The edges of my mental composure are already slightly frayed. My sleep schedule is drifting later again, a few minutes at a time, a creeping tide.

I have begun tentatively eyeing the Panic Button. In order to finish by New Year’s, I created an eight-week schedule that finishes a week before Christmas. In theory, this allows me two weeks of contingency fund in my schedule. In my mind, there’s a big red Panic Button that simply pushes everything back a week. This is a good thing, because I’m not even close to being on schedule. Of course, it was a ballbreaking schedule to begin with. And on the plus side, my productivity is waaaay higher than it was before I put this plan into motion. Not hitting the Panic Button. Yet.

The knife edge of my focus is the morning. The first five minutes of consciousness. If I can get my head in the work first thing, I can roll all day. If I start the day with a lazy thought, it’ll hamsterwheel me all day like a song I can’t get out of my head.

While all this is going on, I’m finishing up some final touches on the libretto of Shine: A Burlesque Musical with John Woods & Cass King, plus a tuneup on a websomething I’ve been working on with Mike Jackson and Seth Jaret. Neither of these projects can really afford delays right now, so it’s really just the way it is. Last night was a lengthy Skype conference with Mike and Seth followed by a rap session on the Werkbund over falafel and beer. Tonight was a subplot tuneup on the Shine libretto. Tomorrow is the book and Shine. Monday is the websomething, shift at the day job, the book, musical jam session. Tuesday the book, the job, the websomething. Wednesday night three of our comedy shorts are screening at Celluloid Social Club, but I have a feeling that I may not be able to make it. I also have a feeling that one by one, things are getting done.

God, I love it when things get done.

For those of you at home that would like to spend five or more years living with an unfinished project, here are some simple tips to help you on your way:

1) Expand the scope of the project.
This is known militarily as “mission creep” or in game design as “feature creep”. The principle is simple: you agree to do something, then once the agreement is in place you slowly expand the mandate. The agreement is a contract of one sort or another. In its simplest form, it’s just something that you said yes to; once you said yes, you were committed to see it to the end, wherever it led. To take just one example, you could set out to write an illustrated overview of Vancouver architecture, then expand that to include a social history of architectural style, then expand it further to include a social critique of western civilisation through the lens of Vancouver architecture. Each time you agree to expand the deliverable, you’re expanding your yes.

2) Work on several projects at the same time.
The most reliable way to not finish a project is to not give it your full attention. The best diversion from an ongoing writing project is another project. I can recommend the following, if you don’t want to finish your project anytime soon: Rewrite two feature screenplays, write and direct an award-winning musical, make two horror shorts and four comedy shorts, create a new sci-fi thriller property, join two gospel choirs, and take a little travel time to visit LA, New York, and Black Rock City. Not that I did all of these things solo; it’s easier to tackle multiple projects if you have great collaborators that you love working with. I’m fortunate to have T.J. Adel, Mike Jackson, Seth Jaret, Cass King, Peter New, and John Woods numbered among my creative partners. Warning, though: this approach carries a risk that any given time someone else is looking pointedly at their watch and waiting for you to come back to whatever project you’ve shuffled onto the back burner that week.

3) Allow yourself to be overwhelmed.
When you’ve been working on something for long enough without taking the time to quantify and track your progress, it’s easy for the demon Resistance to get a hook in you. Listen to its sweet voice lull you with sweet familiar songs like “It’s So Much Work You’re Not Even Close To Finishing”, “Videogames Want To Be Played”, and that popular old hit “Nobody’s Going To Read It Anyway”.

See you next week.

PS: New post is up on the book preview blog: “Asian Fusion and the Bungalow”. New post coming tomorrow on the Hotel Europe.

In Medias Res

I don’t know if I can do this.

I’m halfway through week two of an eight-week schedule to finish a book that my father and I have been working on for the last five years. The work has often taken on a purgatorial aspect.  It’s hard to remember the time before I was working on it: I had to look up the file creation dates to learn that it was indeed five years. Well. All that is about to end. If I can do this.

Styles & Society was to be a book of photos of Vancouver’s architecture – a showcase for our excellent architectural photography, supported by a little bit of historical information for background and interest. Five years later, that little bit of historical information has metastasized into 450 pages of chapter text. Plus 80 full-page photos, each of which is accompanied by a 500-word essay. A little history has become a social history of architectural style and has further expanded to include social critique.

I get by with a little help from my friends. One of those friends is Jennifer Howd, with whom I’ve been doing a coaching exchange. Each week we meet on the phone for an hour or so and work through stuff relating to our respective projects. A couple of weeks ago, Jennifer asked me when the book would be finished. “I have no idea,” I said. “I catalogued all the work we still had to do on it and I think it’s about 25 weeks. It might be shorter and I’m afraid it might be longer. What I’d really love is to finish it by New Year’s.”

“Why don’t you?” she asked.

Damn her. “I don’t know if that’s even possible,” I said.

“Why don’t you just plan to have it done by New Year’s and work backward from there?”

I thought about what this would mean. It would mean doubling the time I worked on it each week and limiting the scope of my work to fit within the compressed schedule. It would mean saying no to a lot of invitations and a lot of leisure time. And, if it worked, it would mean singing Auld Lang Syne at some debaucherous New Year’s Party knowing that the book, the beast, the magnum opus, was done, fresh-paint shiny, idling on the runway with a full tank of gas, ready for takeoff.

“Okay,” I said.

Now, the heat is up. Each week I do bits and pieces of monkey work from Monday to Wednesday, before and after my shifts at my day job. (“Monkey work” is what I call the work that I can do when I’m tired, or when I’ve just got a few minutes: line-level editing, transcription of hardcopy markup, photoretouching, things like that.) Thursday and Friday are for the heavy lifting – the major restructuring that’s the meat of this rewrite. Saturday and Sunday are for picking up the pieces.

Week One was a near miss. I finished a structural edit of 82 pages on Victorian architecture, but didn’t get through resolving all of the zillion annotations. And I still owe a closing paragraph. Now I’m around the corner into the back of week two. My longhand edits on eleven building commentaries are mostly done, but I have structural edits on Styles and Movements (30p) and Classical Architecture (29p) that I’ve barely touched. It’s doable, but thinking about it makes my chest hurt. And Saturday/Sunday is taken up with rewrites on Shine: A Burlesque Musical and a rehearsal with the City Soul Choir.

There’s an Irish notion that after you die, you will be suspended head down in a barrel full of all the liquor you have ever spilt in your life, and if you drown, to hell with you. This schedule makes me think of that story. I can drop a few tasks on the floor to pick up later. A few. If they’re small.

One of the things that really brings me joy is to help other writers, to share what I’ve learned and catalyze something for them that helps them take their work to a higher level. In the New Year, I’ll be rolling out a project-based coaching practice for writers. And I wouldn’t be much of a coach if I couldn’t practice what I preached. I’ve made up a punishing eight-week schedule, with a ninth week for niptucks and pickups. And now I’m on the ride and I can’t get off. But this is where I like it: with my back against a nice concrete wall, cornered, nothing between me and the exit but the work.

I don’t know if I can do this. I only know that I’m doing it. Which makes the question of whether I can or not beside the point.

See you next week.